For Battling ISIS to Save 75 Hostages, This Soldier is the Next Medal of Honor Recipient

By Sean Kimmons

Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne fondly recalls the summer of 2010, even if it began with a grenade blast that shattered his knee.

After assessing the damage, a surgeon told Payne – a Ranger in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command – that if he couldn’t get his knee to bend properly again, his career would be over. Discouraged by the setback, he was sent home to central South Carolina to focus on his recovery.

His mother, a schoolteacher with the summer off, and his father, a law enforcement officer who always tried to keep his son humble, helped with his physical therapy. They nursed him, carefully exercised his knee, and offered encouraging words.

Reflecting on it, Payne, 36, said he had personally brought the war to his parents, as they cared for a wounded soldier thousands of miles from Afghanistan. While a frustrating and worrisome time, his parents still gathered their emotions and gave him the motivation he needed. In battle, he said, soldiers feed off each other’s personal courage when carrying out daring missions. And as he recuperated at home, he fed off his parents’ inspiration as they desperately tried to get him back to his old self.

“There comes a time when sympathy is over,” Payne said. “It’s time to get to work and get back out there.”

The fire he had inside of him grew brighter, leading him to be more disciplined with his therapy. He later fully recovered and improved as a soldier, pulling off an extraordinary mission in 2015.

On September 11, he will receive the Medal of Honor for that mission in Iraq, in which he and others rescued about 75 hostages facing imminent execution by ISIS fighters.

Inspired to Serve, Thanks to G.I. Joe

Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne, an Army Ranger assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. | Photo credit K. Kassens

Growing up near Fort Jackson, Payne was drawn to the military at an early age. When the military post held its annual Fourth of July celebration, his father would take him so he could climb on the tanks, helicopters and other equipment on display.

“As a kid, I wanted to be like a G.I. Joe,” Payne said, smiling. “I was always fascinated with the military.”

Close to one of the Army’s largest posts, his hometowns of Batesburg-Leesville and Lugoff were saturated in military pride. And it rubbed off on him and many others.

Several relatives, including his two brothers and most of his cousins, signed up for the military, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, an Army veteran who fought in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War.

Former Marine Cpl. Kyle Carpenter, who received the Medal of Honor in 2014, had also grown up in Batesburg-Leesville.

“It shows the value of our veteran community, how they inspired us,” Payne said. “Hopefully we can make them proud.”

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, leaving the nation in shock, Payne knew it was his time to step up. At 17 and eager to serve, he first tried to join the Marine Corps, but his mother refused to sign his waiver to enlist. As his 18th birthday slowly approached, he researched more about his future decision. Then, one day while watching ESPN, he saw highlights from the Army’s Best Ranger Competition. He was hooked.

Throughout his childhood, his father had always urged him to be the best in whatever he did in life. And after his recent discovery, the best to Payne became the 75th Ranger Regiment. “When I initially enlisted, I wanted to be surrounded by guys like that,” he said.

At first, his ambitions were cast aside. Standing at 5 feet, 11 inches and 120 pounds, few people believed the scrawny teen could pass the Ranger Indoctrination Program, now known as the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program.

“I was a pretty skinny kid,” said Payne, who has since gained about 60 pounds of lean muscle. “Even my recruiters said, ‘You were our last pick, we didn’t expect you to make it.’”

But “you look for opportunities and capitalize on them,” he added. “I was given an opportunity and sometimes that’s all you need to prove yourself.”

Overcoming an Injury and Finding Love

Payne would go on to prove himself in numerous deployments, most of them shorter tours, to places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. However, in the summer of 2010, when he broke his knee and had to head home to his parents’ house to recover, Payne faced the biggest hurdle of his career. But it also led him to the next chapter of his life.

Later that summer, while relaxing at Lake Murray on a mutual friend’s boat, Payne, still wearing a large knee brace, first met Alison. The two hit it off and they exchanged numbers.

When Payne was ready to begin testing the waters with his knee, Alison, who ran cross country and played lacrosse in college, agreed to help. They decided to return to the lake for their first date, a short run along the dam. Both joined in other runs that summer, and even raced in a sprint outside his parent’s home. Alison ended up winning the race, prompting playful teases from his father that nudged him to do better.

Finally fit for duty again, Patrick returned overseas and kept in contact with Alison. A few years later, they married and eventually had three children. “It’s natural for him,” Alison said of her husband’s dedication to serve. “It’s what he’s always wanted to do. He’s a fish in water in that environment.”

Payne admits he initially struggled to overcome his injury until his parents and Alison stepped in. “I wasn’t really pushing myself to reach my full capability at that time,” he said. “I had to come away with a vengeance and push it every single day.”

Less than two years later, Payne would win the Army’s Best Ranger Competition – the very same contest that convinced him to join the service.

Still, more work was in store for him.

The Risky Rescue of 75 ISIS Hostages

In 2015, Payne’s unit had less than a month left in their Iraq tour when the request from the Kurdish Regional Government rolled in. They said that dozens of Iraqi security forces personnel had been captured and would soon be killed by ISIS fighters inside a prison in Hawija, located between the Tigris River and Kirkuk.

“Our partners came to us for assistance and we’re not going to let them down,” he said. “Time was of the essence. There were freshly dug graves. If we didn’t action this raid, then the hostages were likely to be executed.”

Payne, a then-sergeant first class assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, was part of a joint task force in Erbil that was given a week to prepare for the risky hostage rescue. Intelligence reported the hostages were being housed in two buildings inside the heavily fortified compound. Payne and his team would be responsible for clearing one of them.

In the early morning of October 22, 2015, pre-mission anxiety spread throughout the cabins of the team’s Chinook helicopters as they lifted off. The flight was eerily quiet until the pilots gave the one-minute call, instantly changing the mood.

“That’s when you make that transition from soldier to warrior,” he said. “Once wheels are down on the objective and the ramp drops, that’s when your training totally takes over.”

A complete brownout ensued as the helicopter rotors stirred up dust into the night sky. Using their night vision goggles, Payne and others navigated to the wall of the compound as enemy gunfire erupted. Before his team was able to get to the wall, a “man down” call came over the radio from another team. Just seconds before, Army Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler, a member of the task force, had decided to move ahead to help a Kurdish partner force pinned by a barrage of enemy bullets.

Photo credit Video still via Army.mil

Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne during a 2011 raid in Afghanistan.

“Our partner force was caught in a perfect interlocking sectors of fire and we had to step in,” Payne recalled.

Wheeler looked back to a teammate and said “on me” as he led the charge to the sound of gunfire. After he was shot, the medic in Payne’s team rushed over to assist Wheeler as the rest of the team threw a ladder against the wall and climbed over into the enemy stronghold. In a mission with multiple valor awards, including Wheeler’s Silver Star, many actions occurred within just three minutes of the intense firefight.

Meanwhile, Payne’s team had light resistance as they cleared their assigned building. Once inside, the team saw two rooms with steel prison doors. They used bolt cutters, but struggled with the thick locks until finally piercing through them. As the doors swung open, nearly 40 hostages realized they had been rescued.

“You can see their faces light up,” Payne said. “Some of them are taken aback that they’re seeing our partner force and Americans all in the same room.”

But there was no time to celebrate as the radio echoed an urgent call for help from other task force members still being engaged at the second building. Payne glanced back to one of his teammates. “I told him, ‘let’s get in a fight’ and he gave me the head nod,” he said.

They left their secured position, bounding about 30 yards to the one-story building that was partially on fire from the ongoing battle. A sustained rate of enemy machine-gun fire shot out from below, so Payne and others scaled a ladder to the rooftop. From a vantage point on the roof, they engaged the enemy with hand grenades and small arms fire.

Insurgents began to scream and detonated their suicide vests, causing the roof to shake. At the same time, smoke billowed out from the roof and enemy gunfire targeted them from the west.

After maneuvering back to the ground level, Payne and his team attempted to gain entry through the windows with explosive charges. But they failed to puncture through the sheets of metal and plywood blocking the windows.

Full of adrenaline and willing to risk his life for the remaining hostages, he moved to the initial breach point where a few of the partner forces had just been wounded. He quickly peeked through the breach point and saw the same prison door as the ones in the previous building. He grabbed the bolt cutters and decided to head back in.

With barricaded enemies firing rounds toward him, Payne reentered the structure as other task force members covered him. “Your personal courage is just feeding off of each other,” he said. “At that point, it’s snowballing.”

The building was now completely on fire and the flames cooked off ammunition from a nearby weapons cache. Amid the smoke and chaos, Payne managed to snip one of the locks off the door before he rushed outside for air and handed the bolt cutters to a Kurdish partner. After he came back out, Payne took the tool again to sheer off the last lock and kicked open the door.

Still being shot at by the enemy, Payne and others escorted approximately 30 more hostages out of the charred building, which was about to collapse. “We had to use speed to our advantage,” he said.

While a line of hostages flowed out of the building, one of the held people refused to go as enemy bullets whizzed by. Partially concealed by the smoke, Payne returned and forcibly pulled him out to safety. Still hearing the yells from the enemy just feet away, Payne then made one last check inside to ensure all the hostages were out. “My focus was the hostages,” he said. “That was our mission.”

Satisfied, he called “last man out” and bolted outside to help his teammates get the hostages out of the compound and onto the waiting helicopters.

The heroic mission saved many lives, but also came at a cost. Once they returned to Erbil, Payne and others learned that Wheeler did not survive.

Honoring His Courageous Teammate

Since that day, Payne has continually reflected on Josh Wheeler’s selfless service as well as that of his teammates. While Payne miraculously survived with only minor smoke inhalation, he felt compelled to honor Wheeler’s memory. So, when it was time to name their second son, Payne and Alison chose “Josh.”

“For us, it’s how his legacy lives on,” he said. “He is an American hero.” Coming from a family where military service is also respected, Alison said it was fitting to name their son after such a leader. “I thought that was a great gesture,” she said. “Those are values that we certainly want to instill in our children.”

For his actions, Payne was initially awarded the Army’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, which was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor. But, to Payne, the medal belongs to all those who were with him that October morning. When President Donald Trump called him to say he would be given the military’s highest honor, Payne was surrounded by some of those same men.

Photo credit Richy Rosado

Then-Sgt. 1st Class Thomas “Patrick” Payne, right, with his teammate, Master Sgt. Kevin Foutz, after winning the Best Ranger Competition in 2012. Payne described this as an impactful moment for him and his family; previously injured in 2010, Payne worked to regain his health, marking a full recovery to win the competition.

“Taking that call with my teammates, it was a pretty special moment for us,” he said.

The mission, he said, highlighted the nation’s undying commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – all of which those hostages were given a second chance on.

Making His Father Proud

After watching released video footage from the mission, Payne’s father, Drayton Shealy, said it was hard to believe at first that his son was so courageous.

Like most children, a young Payne pushed the boundaries. He’d get a little mouthy and needed an attitude adjustment at times, Shealy said. Over the years, though, his father witnessed him become a man, a husband and then a father.

Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne with his father Drayton Shealy, a pilot and police officer for Richland County Sheriff’s Dept. in South Carolina on June 25, 2020. | Photo credit Courtesy photo via Army.mil

“And I’m just in awe of this soldier that he has become,” Shealy said. “It is an amazing transformation that you wish that all parents could see.”

While proud of his son, Shealy still wanted to ensure that no matter how many medals were pinned onto his chest, they wouldn’t bloat his ego. “One of the things I told him is that it’s going to be hard to be Clark Kent after you’ve been Superman,” Shealy said. “Because we just like to keep him grounded.”

Shealy, who was 20 years old when Payne was born, said he also helped his son toe the line, forcing him to be more responsible. And as Payne grew up, Shealy said he strived to provide him a pleasant life out in the country, with a little church and some simple rules to live by.

“It’s good,” Payne said, realizing his father’s attempts to instill humility made him into the soldier he is today. “My dad now sees that I’ve come full circle from a boy to a grown man.”

-This story originally appeared on Army.mil. It has been edited for USO.org.

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